Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The coming resurgence of guerrilla warfare in Colombia's cities.

Since it's inception, the Uribe administration has focused the military strategy against the FARC in one direction: pushing the guerrilla group out of major population centers and into isolated, hard to control jungle areas. This strategy has proven highly effective. Conventional wisdom suggests that the reasons Uribe's plan has worked is that military excellence, focus, and training can be highly effective at pushing insurgents outside of any particular zone. This is essentially the "clear and hold" strategy undertaken by the US military in Iraq.

The problem, obviously, with this type of strategy is that territory is largely irrelevant to insurgent forces, it's easy to hide and wait out the "clearing", and that the assumption that insurgents want to take on better trained and better equiped forces is faulty. So why has Uribe's strategy been effective? I suggest that the FARC essentially went along with Uribe's game, to its detriment.

Manuel Marulanda, the founder of the FARC, was always more comfortable in the jungle. It was where the FARC began, where it lived and grew, and ultimately why it adopted the label "people's army". Fortunately for the millions who live in Colombia's cities, Marulanda's reaction to the new offensive launched shortly after Uribe took the reins was to retreat into his comfort zone. Indeed, that had proven effective in the late 90s when the FARC used the provision of a Demilitarized Zone to reconstitute his army's strength (which is also the reason why the current administration ardently refuses to consider another DMZ as a precondition to peace talks).

This new turn proved disaster. The FARC became almost forgotton in the big cities. They were an afterthought, a failing movement relegated to the margins of visible Colombian society. Indeed, the public debate changed fundamentally over the course of five years. Security was replaced with concerns for the kidnapped. And the FARC lost the most important element of any guerrilla war: the war of public relations. The Uribe administration did its part, portraying the FARC as a human rights violating, terrorist group with no respect for human life and little agenda or philosophy on which to stand. This voice would have been stronger had Uribe cleaned up the military's human rights record, but as it, it turned vast sections of the country against the FARC. How could they stand for the people when they kidnapped both combatants and non-combatants and held them in perpetuity in jungle jails, often times chained about the neck.

Just six months ago, there was open discussion suggesting that the FARC may be nearing it's end. I was not so optimistic. Insurgencies don't just die out. They sputter and weaken and resurge and generally go through the pronounced throes of death that can last a generation.

Now, nearing the 1-year anniversary of Marulanda's death from natural causes, the FARC is resurging. The new head of the FARC, Alfonso Cano, is no Marulanda. He isn't wedded to the jungle and he seems to be slowly grasping the lessons from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other insurgencies. Attacking cities gets you noticed. Attacking cities gets you in the paper, in the public eye, and, if you believe in these sorts of things, gets the government to respond to your demands.

Since January 1 of this year, the FARC has launched terror attacks in Cali, Neiva (twice), Bogota, and Villavicencio. This is just the beginning. Over the next several months we shall see the FARC 2.0 and whether they continue targeting infrastructure and military (police) assets or they revert to some of the more daring attacks on the country's wealthy elite, foreigners, and diplomats remains to be seen. I don't expect Bogota, in particular, to revert to a war zone. But I do suggest that violence is coming back, the security which we have enjoyed is temporary, and that the FARC are far from finished.


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